Arsenal are yet to lose against French opposition in France. Their only clean sheet in the last 20 Champions League away games also came against Marseille. I think it safe to say Arsene likes going back to France.
Le Boss won’t be on the touchline for this fixture as he begins his three game suspension but hopefully that won’t make too big a difference.
Montpellier have had a tough start to the season with three defeats and a draw in their opening five Ligue 1 games. Wenger tried to play down the significance of that by citing special circumstances but Rene Girard’s side are yet to find the stability at the back that made them the meanest defence in the competition and brought them the title.
Just like they did against Southampton, Arsenal should find spaces in front of the defence and in the wide areas at the Stade de la Mosson. The French side are well aware of their problems and will be hoping for an much needed improvement against Arsenal.
Star man Younes Belhanda worries his side could be in for a hiding.
If we play like this, we’re going to concede eight. We have to show as quickly as possible that we are men, because we look like kids on the pitch. We’re not dangerous, not sharp enough.
Their concerns are not limited to defence alone as the attack has struggled without top-scorer Giroud. 6 goals in 5 games, with 3 coming in the solitary win over relegation candidates Sochaux, is not nearly enough.
Therefore, in theory this should be an easy game for Arsenal. But therein also lies the potential banana skin. The Gunners will have one eye on the big fixture at the weekend against City but Wenger has to ensure the players don’t lose sight of the task at hand. There’s a temptation to rest some of the key players but retaining continuity and balance is a must.
It’ll be a surprise if the hosts sit deep and narrow like some of the Premier League sides do against Arsenal, so giving Walcott a run on the right could be helpful to the team and the player.
The bigger decision is probably in the central striking role. It seems Arsene doesn’t quite know who his first choice striker is at the moment. If he genuinely liked what he saw from Gervinho it would be worth giving him another go as that helps the player and his teammates, more so if the manager intends to pick him against City.
On the other hand, Giroud is familiar with this defence, having trained with them all of last season, and would probably fancy his chances of opening his Arsenal account in such a fixture. Then again, you could flip that argument around to say Girard and his men know everything about his game and will be better prepared to stop him. Wenger will need all his experience to make that choice and then some luck on the pitch.
Depending on the choice of the centre-forward, Wenger will then have to pick the player on the left. I’d not take Podolski out just when he’s hitting some form.
In the midfield, the Arsenal manager has even more options. The hosts have a fair amount of technical skill and individual quality in that part of the pitch so the Gunners have to be careful not to lose the battle in the centre of the pitch.
This seems like a good game to start Ramsey with Diaby and Arteta behind him for the sake of consistency and balance. Cazorla might welcome a breather if the Premier League intensity is taking its toll. Some fans might be worried the Welshman will slow things down or lose possession more often but if the performance against Southampton is anything to go by, Ramsey deserves a start.
Wenger might even keep Coquelin in the side if he only wants to pick one of Arteta and Diaby but that could make the midfielder marginally weaker in terms of ball retention, circulation, and tactical awareness. Making too many changes to the midfield would also be risky if the manager wants to rest some defenders. If anything, the french youngster could be given a start at right back. This will give him a chance to prove his versatility and improve his chances of making it at Arsenal.
At the back there are fewer choices. Santos for Gibbs is one possibility. Koscielny could also come in for Mertesacker or Vermaelen. Mannone will start in goal.
Mannone – Coquelin, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Santos – Arteta, Ramsey, Diaby – Walcott, Gervinho, Podolski.
The pace upfront should trouble the Montpellier defence, especially if they move up the pitch.
The hosts have the ability to pass the ball around and ping a few measured through-balls. They also have pace on the flanks. Having quick defenders will help Arsenal.
With the likes of Belhanda, Cabella, Saihi, and Stambouli available in midfield, Montpellier could mount a strong technical challenge in that area. The Gunners will need nothing less than their usual assuredness on the ball. A weak midfield could leave the defence vulnerable and/or the attack impotent.
I’ll be surprised if Arsene chooses this exact line-up, but the key for Le Boss is to find the starting eleven with the right balance to dominate possession, protect Mannone, and utilize the gaps in the opponent’s defence while resting as many players as he can. Extra firepower on the bench should be useful but hopefully won’t be receiving a distress call an hour into the game.
I expect another open and entertaining game with three or more goals.
You might enjoy preparing for the tie by watching these highlights of Montpellier’s league games thus far (Toulouse, Lorient (A), Marseille, Sochaux (A), and Stade de Reims (A)) and reading this interesting tidbit from UEFA’s match preview.
Wenger faced Girard twice in Ligue 1 during his time as a defender with RC Strasbourg. Girard played for Nîmes Olympique SC in 1979 against Wenger, the game ending goalless, and for FC Girondins de Bordeaux in 1980 with Bordeaux winning 2-1.